FBI Claims Six Hijack Teams on 9/11
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September 19, 2001, Wednesday
A NATION CHALLENGED: THE INVESTIGATION; Officials Say 2 More Jets May Have Been in the Plot
By DAVID JOHNSTON and JAMES RISEN (NYT) 1485 words
WASHINGTON, Sept. 18 -- Federal authorities said today that they were investigating the possibility that terrorists might have plotted to commandeer two more commercial flights on the day that four planes were hijacked and used in attacks on New York and the Pentagon.
Law enforcement officials said they were taking the possibility of other hijack targets seriously, based on information from several sources, including citizens' tips and information from cooperating witnesses.
One flight under investigation is American Airlines Flight 43, which left Newark International Airport about 8:10 a.m. bound for Los Angeles; it made an emergency landing in Cincinnati after the government ordered all flights grounded.
The other flight is American Airlines Flight 1729 from Newark to San Antonio via Dallas that was scheduled to depart at 8:50 a.m. and was later forced to land at St. Louis.
Attorney General John Ashcroft acknowledged that the authorities were investigating whether other aircraft besides the four might have been targeted. But, Mr. Ashcroft added, ''we are not able at this time to confirm that.''
Mr. Ashcroft said that 75 people who might have information in the case were in custody on immigration charges, and reports of new arrests came in today from Los Angeles, Detroit and Orlando, Fla.
As investigators continued to make arrests and conduct searches, law enforcement officials acknowledged that the F.B.I.'s efforts to conduct electronic surveillance of foreign terrorists in the United States had been troubled in recent months, prompting an internal inquiry into possible abuses.
Justice Department and F.B.I. officials, who acknowledged the existence of the internal investigation, said the inquiry had forced officials to examine their monitoring of several suspected terrorist groups, among them Al Qaeda, the network led by Osama bin Laden, and Hamas, the militant Palestinian group. Al Qaeda is the group that President Bush and others have cited for last week's attacks.
Senior F.B.I. and Justice Department officials said that they had not allowed the internal investigation of terrorism-related wiretaps to affect their ability to monitor Al Qaeda or Hamas. But other officials said the inquiry might have hampered electronic surveillance of terror groups.
The matter remains highly classified.
The officials said the internal inquiry was opened in part because of legal problems arising from the government's investigation into the 1998 bombings of two American Embassies in East Africa, involving Al Qaeda members
Today, law enforcement officials said that the evidence of a broader plot in the airliner hijackings was suggestive but inconsistent. In the case of American Airlines Flight 1729, the authorities have detained two men from the flight who were arrested aboard an Amtrak train in Fort Worth after their flight had been forced to land in St. Louis. The two men, identified as Ayubali Ali Kahn and Mohammed Jaweed Azmath, were the only people aboard the flight who appeared to be suspicious; each of the other flights had hijack teams of four or five men.
A senior F.B.I. official said today that the authorities were examining hundreds of e-mail messages to and from the suspected hijackers and their known associates.
The messages were mainly in English and Arabic, said the official, who would not describe the content aside from saying that the messages were provided by large Internet service providers.
American intelligence officials also said today that they had received a report that Mohamed Atta, a suspected hijacker on American Airlines Flight 11, which struck the World Trade Center North Tower, met several months ago with an Iraqi intelligence official in Europe. The American officials said the report of the meeting had been received in the last few days.
The officials said they were not sure of the purpose of the meeting, if it did occur, and were investigating the possible connection. They emphasized that it did not prove that Iraq played a role in the attacks.
In addition to the two men who were arrested on the Amtrak train and taken to New York as material witnesses in the investigation, federal agents have also taken to New York for questioning a man who was arrested in Minnesota in mid-August on a passport violation after he sought training on a airplane flight simulator.
The man, Zacarias Moussaoui, apparently raised suspicion at the Pan Am International Flight Academy in Eagan, Minn., although officials with the academy have declined to describe why.
Within days of Mr. Moussaoui's arrest, federal agents showed up at the Airman Flight School in Oklahoma, where he had enrolled earlier in the year, said Dale Davis, director of operations at the flight school. Mr. Davis said the agents took copies of Mr. Moussaoui's immigration form and asked, among other things, whether Mr. Moussaoui had ever made anti-American statements. Mr. Davis said he told the agents that Mr. Moussaoui had not.
At the same time, investigators appeared to be uncertain about the scope of the entire operation, particularly in cities outside the Northeast. Several connections to San Antonio have been developed.
Albader Alhazmi, a 34-year-old radiologist from San Antonio, is being held in New York as a material witness, one official said. Dr. Alhazmi's home and workplace have been searched.
The internal debate at the Justice Department and F.B.I. over wiretap surveillance of terrorist groups ignited in March, prompted by questions raised by Royce C. Lamberth, the chief judge of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, a little-known panel that decides whether to approve Justice Department applications to permit wiretaps and clandestine searches in espionage and international terror cases.
In a letter to Attorney General Ashcroft, Judge Lamberth raised questions about a wiretap request related to a Hamas member, officials said. Under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the F.B.I. must make applications, through the Justice Department, to the surveillance court to authorize wiretaps and clandestine searches of the homes and offices of suspected terrorists and spies.
The foreign surveillance act, passed in 1978 in the wake of Watergate and other revelations of abuses by the F.B.I. and C.I.A., created a legal framework to allow the government to eavesdrop on people considered dangerous to American national security, even if prosecutors had not yet developed a criminal case against them.
The legal standards that the F.B.I. must meet to obtain court authorization under the act are lower than the probable cause required under most criminal cases. But that flexibility comes with a cost: information gathered under the act can be used only in criminal cases under highly limited conditions.
Civil liberties advocates have frequently expressed concerns about whether the act allows the government to blur the lines between intelligence gathering and criminal prosecutions.
Judge Lamberth's concerns about F.B.I. applications to the court are apparently related to whether the bureau was seeking wiretaps under the act on individuals without informing the court of a subject's status pending criminal investigations.
The Bush administration team at the Justice Department reacted to Judge Lamberth's complaints by opening an inquiry into Michael Resnick, an F.B.I. official who coordinates the act's applications.
Mr. Ashcroft and Robert S. Mueller III, now director of the F.B.I., who at the time was temporarily serving as deputy attorney general, ordered a review of foreign surveillance authorizations. Louis J. Freeh, who was then the F.B.I. director, and Lawrence Parkinson, the bureau's general counsel, ordered a review of several applications in terrorism cases dating back several years.
Disclosure of the internal investigation of the foreign intelligence process comes just as Mr. Ashcroft is seeking Congressional support for an emergency package of anti-terrorism legislation, including an expansion of the Justice Department's ability to use wiretaps in cases of suspected terrorism or espionage.
Under his proposal, law enforcement agents would have broad authority to conduct roving electronic surveillance of suspected terrorists as they move from phone to phone or from computer terminal to computer terminal.
Some officials argue that the current system imposes burdens on the F.B.I. and Justice Department as they seek to obtain wiretaps of suspected terrorists. Under the foreign intelligence act, electronic surveillance authorization must be renewed by the F.I.S.A. court every 90 days, and authorization for physical search warrants must be renewed by the court every 45 days.
Applications surged after Tuesday's attacks, officials said.
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